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Kira Kelly is a Hollywood rarity: A female, African-American cinematographer

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She has an Emmy nomination for Ava DuVernay's documentary, "13th," and that led to her working on the filmmaker's "Queen Sugar."

Cinematographer Kira Kelly worked her way up in the film biz working in the electrical department as a gaffer on films and TV shows. But she always dreamed of being the one handling a camera. 

Like a lot of people trying to make it in the biz, she picked up camera work jobs on the side of her day job, until one day she just decided it was time to prioritize her passion. 

She first started shooting for music videos, until one day she got a call from director Ava Duvernay's assistant, asking for a meeting. She jumped at the chance, of course. 

"We ended up meeting up about this [virtual reality] project that didn't end up happening, but she said, 'By the way, I'm working on this documentary, would you like to be a part of it? And of course, the answer is Yes, yes, yes! So, she started telling me about '13th.' and that's how I got on board," said Kelly on The Frame. 

 "13th," examines the evolution of slavery into mass incarceration in the United States. Instead of standard talking heads, Kelly worked with DuVernay and co-director of photography, Hans Charles, to create a gritty visual style, creatively framing subjects in industrial locations.

DuVernay has been an outspoken proponent for inclusive casting and hiring practices. For the OWN Network family drama, "Queen Sugar," DuVernay hired female directors to helm every episode. And for the second season, she tapped Kelly as cinematographer.

"Queen Sugar" follows the dramatic encounters of a storied African-American family in New Orleans, while bringing to light topical issues faced by the black community.

To lens the second season's lush visuals and tense scenes, Kelly draws from her background in cinematography for documentaries, as well as narrative projects like "East Los High."

Angela Davis in the Netflix documentary "13th."
Angela Davis in the Netflix documentary "13th."

As an African-American and woman, Kelly is a rarity in her field, but she hopes to that will change thanks to inclusive hiring practices she's learned from DuVernay. When she stopped by The Frame, Kelly talked about how she got her start in the industry.


On how her career began:

I started out as an electrician, in the lighting department. While I was there I was already shooting stuff, I'd shoot any project that I could get my hands on. I went to film school for cinematography, and then slowly but surely I moved up to gaffing. I was able to work on projects with much bigger budgets as a gaffer than I had when I was shooting. So I was able to learn a lot. 

On working with Ava DuVernay:

She started following me on social media, and I was like, Oh, that's fun! At one point, I got an email from one of her assistants saying, "Ava wants to meet with you. Would you be interested?" I said, Of course!  We ended up meeting up about this [virtual reality] project that didn't end up happening, but she said, "By the way I'm working on this documentary, would you like to be a part of it?" And of course, the answer is Yes, yes, yes! So, she started telling me about "13th." and that's how I got on board.

13th Trailer

On approaching documentaries as opposed to narrative fiction:

I feel like documentary is a great place to work on improvisation. When I work on "Queen Sugar," I have a wonderful, huge crew behind me. They're ready, they're supportive. We've got two cameras, camera operators, it's a big crew. Whereas documentaries, usually it's just me and maybe a camera assistant; there's a gaffer, key grip helping with lighting. But it's much smaller. In a lot of cases, you are going to these places you haven't seen before, you haven't prepped it. You know vaguely where the sun is going to be, but you go in and you have to find a way to make that work for the next two hours of an interview.

There's a lot of variables that you don't have time to prep [for] and figure out. It's a great way to keep that improvisational mind going when you go and work in narrative stuff. In narrative, you have the support behind you. You have the equipment. You have the prep, and all that. But sometimes things change, and that documentary mindset helps you work more on your toes.

On DuVernay's choice to hire all women directors:

What's great about what Ava wanted to do is that these are directors that may have done a few feature films, but hadn't gotten their foot in the doors as far as working in television. So, they brought some really great and inspiring ideas to the set. Their influence and their input tapped into a bit of the artistry aspect.

I think the set and the cast are so inviting. People say this all the time, but for "Queen Sugar," it feels like a family. It's a really inspiring place to be.

On having Oprah Winfrey as an executive producer on 'Queen Sugar':

You can definitely feel the presence of Oprah and Ava. We're given a lot of freedom creatively, which is wonderful, but we're also given a lot of support. The show is a work of love. I know how much this show means to Ava, I know how much it means to Oprah. That makes it mean even more to me because you want to be careful with their baby.

On her advice to young, aspiring cinematographers:

The best advice would be to shoot everything you can. Also, try to live a little below your means because you don't want to necessarily have to say yes to a project, just because you need the money. I think we've all kind of done that before. Try to set yourself up in a way that you can say yes to the projects that you really, really love.

To hear the full interview with Kira Kelly, click on the player above.

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